Christianity Is…Emotional

This is the fourth instalment in my Christianity Is… series. If you want to catch up on what I’ve written so far, you can find the introduction here, Christianity Is…Pure here, and …Physical here.

So far I’ve looked at two different aspects of Christianity, and both times there has been a bit of myth busting to do. First I had to look at how the rules of Christianity don’t take away freedom, they actually give it, and then I was looking a bit at the myth that Christianity is all about internal spirituality, and getting to a non-physical heaven. Now I have a third myth to bust – the myth that is perpetuated by images of cold, sparsely populated churches, irrelevant sermons and droning old songs. This is the myth that Christianity is lifeless and boring.

Emotion is key to the busting of this myth. The truth of Christianity is that it is something vibrant and powerful, that can be engaged with on a deep level by people of all ages. It has the potential to connect with us in a variety of ways, and one of the most important of these connections is emotional. You see, we like to think that we’re always rational, intellectual beings (particularly in the West), and that we can always analyse any given situation objectively to make sure that we always make the right decision.

In reality, this isn’t the case. Much of what we think is influenced heavily by emotions, and so are our decisions. We enjoy something, so we want to do it again. We dislike something, so we avoid it, regardless of how good and bad those things are for us.

The significance of this for Christianity is twofold. On the one hand, we can’t ignore the potential for the connection between emotion and sin. The emotional high we can get from something, like, say, a big win in gambling, can drive us to go in search of that high again and again, until we become a slave to it. Remember, as I said in the Pure post, one of the defining features of sin is that it enslaves us. On the positive side, allowing ourselves to engage emotionally with Christianity can massively improve our relationship with God, and our experience of the Christian faith.

So far I’ve been appealing mostly to common knowledge, but now let’s turn to the Bible. Where is the emotion there? My first thought is the Psalms, the big book of songs and poems in the middle of the Bible. Many of these Psalms involve the authors pouring out their emotions to God.

“My soul longs, even faints, for the courts of the Lord.” (Psalm 84:2)

“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music.” (Psalm 98:4)

“But as for me, afflicted and in pain—may your salvation, God, protect me.” (Psalm 69:29)

In those three examples we can see longing, joyful praise, and pain, all emotions poured out to the Lord. And then there’s the example of David dancing in the streets, so great was his joy (2 Samuel 6:14), and of course, stories of Jesus pouring his heart out to God (for example, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Matthew 26:36-39).

Authentic Christianity requires us to be authentic before God. We can’t just bottle up our emotions inside, otherwise we will never be honest before him in our prayers.

I can’t talk about emotion without mentioned love. Now, love in Christianity is not just a feeling – it’s a real, practical force that is intrinsically tied to meeting the needs of those around us. That said, it can’t be completely divorced from our understanding of it as an emotion. In fact, many of Jesus’ acts of love, like his healing miracles, were coupled with his compassion on the people around him, and that compassion surely involves some sort of feeling of love towards them.

Or another example could be Paul’s attitudes to the churches that he writes to. To the Philippians, he says that ‘God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:8). It is clear from his letters that Paul has a deep, passionate concern for the fledgling churches of the time, and that concern is one of the motivating factors in his teachings.

It seems to me that all these examples show us that Christianity is not meant to be something cold and devoid of emotion, but something that we feel in our hearts as well as think about with our minds. But what is always important to remember is that the feelings in the Bible are never purposeless. David’s joy leads to a public demonstration of praise. Jesus’ compassion leads to miraculous healings. Paul’s affection leads to some of the most famous Christian writings we have today. But likewise, if you take the feelings away, then you are left with something that is fundamentally disconnected from human experience, and if there’s one thing that Jesus coming to earth shows, it’s that God knows how important it is to connect with us in just that way.

Before I finish, as always, I want to show how emotion connects with the other four aspects that I’m talking about.

Purity – as we grow in relationship with God, I believe that our emotions will become more in line with his. We can see this in that Philippians verse, where Paul longs for the Philippians with the ‘affection of Jesus Christ’. As we understand more about God works, our emotions can actually help to show us how to react in different situations.

Physical – I’ve already mentioned this link as well, and this is the link that we can see between compassion and action. The two are not separate in the Bible, because compassion leads to action, and this is most powerfully seen in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Purpose – God made us emotional beings for a reason, and I think one of the reasons for this, as shown in the powerful, raw emotion of the Psalms, is that through that emotion we can have a deeper relational connection to him. Because of how fundamental our emotions are to our psychology, it makes sense that we should lay them bare before God if our goal is true relationship with him.

Intelligent – Given the tension between emotion and intellect that I’ve already touched upon, it’s hard to see a natural connection, but the truth is that we need both to live a truly fulfilled Christian life. It is not enough to simply know about God (as James tellingly writes, even the demons manage that – James 2:19), but neither is it enough to rely on pure emotion in our relationship with him – if we do that then we will never engage with the teachings of the Bible that need to be wrestled with in our minds. Even if I haven’t quite worked out how the two support each other yet, it’s clear to me that both are necessary to the Christian faith!

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